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Shakespeare wades into Indian freedom of expression row

Something’s rotten… UTV Motion Pictures, CC BY-SA

A recent adaptation of Hamlet caused outrage in India, flagging up just how deep the rift between artistic culture and so called “Indian values” runs.

When the trailer for Haider, Vishal Bhardwaj’s Kashmir-set film of Hamlet, came out in September there was speculation that it wouldn’t get past the Indian film censor board and might not even screen in India.

The film is set in 1995, at the height of the armed conflict between India, Pakistan and those who fight for a free Kashmir. It offers an unflinching and nuanced portrayal of the toll that the conflict had on the people there. As such, it could not help but be critical of human rights abuses perpetrated by the Indian army and Border Security Force, who have been present in the state since 1947 when the British colonisers left and the division of the subcontinent into India and Pakistan took place.

Reports by NGOs including Human Rights Watch have documented the disappearances, the torture of prisoners and extra-judicial killings, the culture of impunity the forces work under and the climate of fear people live in.

The Prince of Kashmir

Haider confronts all of these issues with an aghast, despairing sensibility. It also acknowledges the corresponding radicalisation of Kashmiri young men who leave their homes to cross the line of control into Pakistani territory to fight for an independent state. And the plight of the generations of “half-widows” left by the violence is laid bare: the hundreds who don’t know if their husbands, brothers or sons are alive or dead.

As in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Haider shows that no side is innocent. Sunni, Shi’a and Hindu Kashmiri Pandit communities are all depicted as capable of abuse, brutality and corruption. India, Pakistan and Britain are all marked as culpable.

The irony is thick: Haider (played by Shahid Kapoor), who is Muslim, is away at Aaligarh University when his father “disappears”. When Haider returns to Srinagar to find out what happened, he tells the Indian military at a checkpoint that he is studying “the revolutionary poets of British India”.

Of course this socio-political critique didn’t prevent the film from screening in the UK (although sadly distribution was limited to majority Asian areas). In Pakistan, a petition was filed to the high court in Lahore to ban its exhibition on the grounds that it is “against the ideology of Pakistan and challenged the two-nation theory”. The judge threw out the argument, saying the matter was one for the censor not the state to decide. The film did not pass the censor in Pakistan.

The film even got around the lack of cinemas in Indian-controlled Kashmir (the state once had a rich cultural life, but because of the conflict, cinemas have been closed for decades and re-purposed for Indian military use). A pirate version was screened on Kashmiri TV.

But in India, although the censors passed the film and it had a nationwide release (bar Kashmir) in October, #BoycottHaider started trending almost immediately on Twitter.

Hindu Indian ultra-nationalists are quick to take action against any cultural offering that offends their religious sensibility, criticises the Indian state or army or denigrates Indian “values”. Some went as far as to accuse Kashmiri journalist and Haider scriptwriter Basharat Peer of being funded by Islamic State.

More recently, in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, a group named “Hindus for Justice” called for the film to be banned and filed court documents claiming that “the sovereignty and integrity of India has been attacked with impunity”, and “the unity of the nation has been undermined” by the film.

Something rotten?

This isn’t the first time that Uttar Pradesh, which lies in the Hindi speaking, Hindu heartland of India, has been at the centre of the culture versus religious values row. Strangely, Shakespeare often seems to be involved. In 2013, the state court banned the Bollywood hit Ram Leela, a film loosely based on Romeo and Juliet. Hardline Hindu sensibilities were hurt by the title, which they said misrepresents the Hindu God Rām.

Then there’s Rohinton Mistry’s Booker nominated novel Such A Long Journey, which uses Shakespeare’s King Lear as a blueprint. This was removed from the syllabus of Mumbai University after a threat of violence from the right wing group Shiv Sena.

Though nothing to do with Shakespeare, another recent case had Wendy Doniger’s book Hindus: An Alternative History recalled and pulped by Penguin India following accusations that it denigrates Hinduism.

Beneath these high-profile cases are the stories of countless other artists and writers cowed by threats and violence from ultra-nationalist and religious groups. Examples can be found from mainstream cinema halls to the annual Indian Art Fair, where in 2012 works were confiscated by customs officials who deemed them too “lewd”. Many artists are also silenced by long running legal battles against the claim that their work offends Hindus.

In Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare wrote: “To be furious/ Is to be frightened out of fear”, meaning that fury forces fear to fall away. Worryingly, this seems to be the prevailing mood of the ultra-nationalist right wing now that Narendra Modi, whose power base grew from there, is the new prime minister of India.

The Guardian’s India correspondent, Jason Burke, suggests that the vitriolic responses to Haider reflect a new found confidence in the far-right’s fury, despite Modi’s current careful balancing act between those groups and the centre-right. But there’s a dual meaning to Shakespeare’s lines: that such hysterical rage is only provoked when a deep fear becomes overwhelming. That note of hysteria rings through these ultra-nationalist protests over cultural works.

There’s a wonderful moment in Haider where the protagonist performs his story in several languages (including gibberish), articulating the trauma and paranoia of the people, the futility of the war. He appears to be mad but his message is clear: all are driven so by conflict, repression and silencing. It is the ordinary people caught in ideological and literal crossfire that suffer the most.

Spoiler alert

Haider survives to tell his story, but countless others have not been so lucky, either in Kashmir or when they have been silenced by the courts.

As the Uttar Pradesh case continues, the fate of the film will prove a litmus test for the importance of culture bearing witness to trauma; and to freedom of expression in the world’s self-proclaimed “largest democracy”.

Note from editor: this article was amended on June 1 2015 to correct an error – Haider did not pass the Pakistani censor although the high court petition was thrown out.

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